Robot Voice Ten Cent Talk Box

Back to sciencetoymaker home page
Talk Box Gallery. See what people are doing

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I got a really interesting comment on the YouTube Talk Box instructional video from Tony Carl. "I found that wrapping a garbage bag wire tie around the base of the reed makes it easier to adjust the reed opening. Just lightly squeeze the wire at the top and bottom close the opening a little or at the sides to open a little. A piece of tape wrapped around the wire to keep the ends of the wire from puncturing the balloon :)" Tony based this innovation on the construction of crumhorn and bassoon reeds.

I found the twisty technique to be very helpful and I think it will help other people having trouble adjusting the reeds. Even sliding the wire a little forward or backward on the straw had an adjusting effect. If I squeeze it too hard shut, I can also push a pencil in to open it a little (in addition to squeezing the sides, as Tony recommends)..



Aside from the fun of speaking in a robot voice--and other cool harmonic sound effects--the 10 Cent Talk Box lets you step back and observe the amazing process of how our vocal tracts sculpt raw sound into speech. Musicians like Peter Frampton have been using talk boxes for decades to sing with an unworldly voices. When I heard a talk box the first time I thought that singer's voice was being run through a synthesizer and electronically modified. But it's a surprisingly simple accoustic trick. Set a column of air vibrating with the sound of an instrument. Channel said vibrations into the musician's mouth with a tube instead of using the musician's vocal folds. You can even form vowels outside your mouth with an artificial vocal tract (a plastic soda bottle). If YouTube is blocked at your school, try this SchoolTube equivalent.

As with so many things, it's the details that make or break projects. Getting the "reeds" of the straw to vibrate can be maddening at first. Part 2 shows some tips that I've found helpful. But there's no substitute for just trying different things and cultivating a feel for what works. Here is the SchoolTube equivalent.

Whether you do this project as an individual, family, school/scout/church group--whatever--please make a video of building/using your talk box. I will put links in the Talk Box Gallery.

No one person has all the good ideas. Everyone brings a fresh perspective, and the straw Talk Box project is a new--just waiting for people to discover cool new directions to go with it. Make a YouTube video response (not difficult). I can also put innovation links in the Talk Box Gallery.

Here are some cool links related to talk boxes, vocal tracts and speech

Peter Frampton explains how the talk box works.

Here's a museum exhibit that artificially replaces lungs, vocal folds and vocal tract similarly to the was I did it with cut bottles.
And here is an explanation of the exhibit with pictures of vocal tracts. This video, at about 6:30 show the origin of the famous Vocal Vowels exhibit.. Earlier parts in the series show the progression from a rough idea to finished exhibit. The whole Nova science doumentary is brilliant! Any Meara O'Reilly (below) is going to have a go at improving the sound.

This person uses a jaw-harp to create the speech vibrations instead of a talk box.

Wikepedia explanation of a talk box.

Here are some great talk box performances Stevie Wonder Stevie Wonder Peter Frampton

Here's an applet that simulates changes in the vocal resonator. Fun!

This person, Meara O'Reilly, is an artist/scientist doing amazing creative things with sound. This is her BoingBoing blog, and here is some research taking off from Alexander Graham Bell's work with "visible speech". This video will take your breath away. In her ethereal music, she doesn't only play instruments, she doesn't only make instruments, she invents instruments!

This video shows the origin

What American English sounds like to non-English speakers, a satire, starts about 40 seconds in. It's gibberish designed to sound like American English.

Here are some amazing videos relating to reeds and sound that Tony Carl (top) found.

Here is a robot vocal tract.


It's not at all unusual for doctors to thread a flexible scope into your nose and down your throat to see the observe the vocal folds.

Sometimes vocal folds have to be removed because of cancer of other things. Then there are various strategies to facilitate communication.

Ever heard of throat singing?

Back to sciencetoymaker home page
Talk Box Gallery